When I first arrived in DC I found myself bemoaning the fact that I’d yet to discover a suitable sylvan surrogate to compensate for my much-loved and much-needed daily forays into Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Without question every person in DC with whom I had this conversation had the identical response:
“You really need to visit Meridian Hill Park!”
In keeping with my past DC transgressions, I was somewhat skeptical given the fact that Meridian Hill Park was a true urban park with a very formal Italianate design language; this in contrast to the rolling, idyllic landscape that was the personal favorite of Olmsted’s own creations. Clearly the contrast between urban enfilade and rustic retreat was a non-starter from my point of view. Mind you my melancholic descriptions of Prospect Park always center on the sense of escape one is able to experience there and this was the consistent detail that all of my DC colleagues seemed to point to with respect to Meridian Hill Park.
Let me start by saying that I was absolutely enthralled by Meridian Hill Park from the moment I stepped into the park. This park is so impressive on so many levels that it’s really hard to know where to begin. Often my approach to exploring any given landscape is to first understand it’s outer edges and thresholds. This is of particular interest with Meridian Hill Park as it is built on a fairly steep, sloping site. There are two formal, ceremonial entrances to the park–one at the bottom of the hill along the west edge of the park (16th Street) and one at the top of the hill along the east edge of the park (15th Street). The sloping east and west edges of the park run the long lengths of the park–some 1500 feet; approximately 2 New York City (long) blocks–and provide some very dramatic design moments.
Perhaps one of the most interesting edge conditions is the elevated sidewalk / terrace that spans the entire length of park’s south, W Street edge. Of particular interest is the fact that the park can only be entered at the corners–some 400 feet apart from one another. That’s a long, uninterrupted stretch of terrace. By conventional urban planning standards this is one of the ultimate ‘don’ts’–whereby restricted access into the park contributes to both reduced park activity and subsequent security concerns; as Holly Whyte or Jane Jacobs would assert, a park’s edges need to be lively and inviting. In this instance the fact of the matter is that this particular stretch of W Street is a truly innocuous bit of urban fabric. The decision to more or less ignore the public sidewalk in order to create an elevated, alternative public thoroughfare is actually quite inspiring.
Along this esplanade of sorts one encounters an assortment of artfully disposed staircases leading up into the park–some grand and ceremonial and others of a more discrete, intimate disposition–interspersed with long, linear niches for seating. In a certain sense this experience is expressive of a larger theme to be found throughout the park wherein grand, expansive spaces are always complimented by smaller, intimately detailed destinations. In this regard Meridian Hill Park is a masterful essay on scale within the public realm; inviting the visitor to explore a heroic landscape…in progress…
Of the two formal entrances to the park, the west entrance along 16th Street (at the bottom of the hill) is by far the more ceremonial of the two due in no small part to the elaborate sequence of civic terraces that one encounters upon entering the park at this location. At the center of all the action lies a vast reflecting pool surrounded by exquisite works of civic art on all sides.